Parenting Regrets, ‘Right Time’ for Kids

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

Happy summer from Brooding HQ, which is, as of this writing, my in-laws’ guest room in Maine. The mosquitos are crazed with hunger, the sun hasn’t been out in five days, but my kids have been playing with their cousins visiting from out West and I’ve eaten clams three different ways this week. Good times.

I generally avoid giving advice in this newsletter. There’s a lot of great advice out there offered by professionals – you don’t need mine. I also tend to believe that people can figure out what’s right for themselves once they learn to trust their instincts. My instincts are a product of my upbringing and social context, and it would be weird to assume that what makes sense for me in Montreal would be appropriate for you somewhere else.

But people email me questions all the time, and some of them are thought-provoking. In the spirit of taking a break, I’ll devote a couple of columns to readers’ questions this summer, in between regularly scheduled programming about relaxing summertime topics like overheating ponds and traveling while broke. Thanks to everyone who has written to [email protected] — please keep your questions and commentary coming.

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Louis Armstrong. Someone asked him to define what jazz is, and he replied: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

My version of this formulation is: If you have the presence of mind to ask when the best time to have kids is, you’re ready to have kids now. As we say in Canada: Giv’er. This question is a spicy meatball and I know many — if not, at this point in history, most — readers are waiting much longer than I did to have kids. The pressure to become a fresh young mother is basically a decadeslong weather system that women have to live under, so I’m mindful that I’m wading into sensitive territory, and everyone should wait as long as they please, if they want to reproduce at all. Nonetheless, I am constitutionally opposed to waiting for the perfect time to make any major life decision, and that’s why I got married at the borderline troubling age of 22, and had my first kid just shy of 28. If the boomers who raised me taught me one useful lesson, it’s that blind optimism is a surer path to happiness than risk aversion, at least when it comes to your personal life.

Having kids sooner rather than later — or, if I’m being honest with you, ASAP — is easier on your sanity. The longer we wait, the more there is for our children to disrupt. Our habits become more entrenched, our standards and expectations get higher, and perhaps most troublingly, we come to know more. Knowing less is sometimes good. I realize this advice goes against the current of all parenting advice today. Dr. Emily Oster et al. assume readers associate being informed with being a good parent. For me, knowing less about parenting (and about life) as a young mother freed me up to figure things out for myself. I was uninformed and overconfident, which was a good combination, at least for me.

To all the parents of young children in your 40s and 50s, I salute your choices and your priorities. Please don’t unsubscribe to my newsletter en masse in protest because I’ll be left with a dozen readers in their 30s who haven’t had kids yet. See, this is why I don’t like to give advice! Everyone’s choices make sense for them. Everyone’s doing great. All I know for sure is that I’m grateful I got my sleep-deprivation years over with in my early 30s, and now I sleep all I want.

This is a great question, one that I would love to hear about from other parents. My answer: I wish we had been stricter enforcers of rules about tidiness and politeness. We waited too long to start hammering these rules home, and have come up against maddening resistance from our kids who, through no fault of their own, did not see these expectations coming.

For reasons too sociohistorically complicated (and possibly boring) to get into here, my husband and I were both raised in families where codes of conduct were loose — myself in particular. When you learn your table manners at a communal table on a hippie commune as I did, let’s just say there’s not a lot of guidance along the way. There is a galaxy of etiquette that I have no idea about, and sometimes I have a horrible vertiginous feeling that I truly have no idea what politeness even is. (But please do invite me to your fancy events — I love to learn!)

Consequently, teaching manners wasn’t a big part of what I considered to be the work of parenting young children. I suspect I’m not alone in this — most of the parenting advice you read today is about teaching emotional intelligence and self-regulation (Dr. Becky hive, I see you). Children are taught to name their feelings, but not to ask to be excused from the table. All of this seemed fine and correct, until my children became old enough to know better than to belch à table, and suddenly my husband and I realized that no one had ever explicitly taught them not to do that.

A couple of weeks ago I graduated with my doctorate in sociology, and my sons refused to dress up for the ceremony. I was a bit devastated by this. Not because I felt offended by their refusal, but because I realized I had never taught them the importance (and the joy!) of looking nice for certain events. My kids did not understand why they should dress up. It seemed like an arbitrary demand being made on them, and they balked. I felt like generations of my dead ancestors were looking on in horror at my parenting.

Sometimes I worry that in the midst of teaching my kids about compassion and reading and consent, we forgot to teach them some of the very basic rules of living in a society. I am not trying to set up a spurious culture-war dichotomy about raising a bunch of emotionally sensitive children with no traditional social graces — but I do know we’ve focused a lot on certain things and not on others. My husband and I were talking recently about how upsetting it is to have to keep telling our kids to clean up after themselves, over and over again. We feel shame at having failed to teach these lessons sooner, and anger at them for not somehow already knowing them. Why does this make us so emotional, we wondered?

Some explanation can be found in Norbert Elias’s 1969 opus, The Civilizing Process, which proposes a theory of how European cultures evolved from the most brutal and violent medieval times to today, in part through the evolution of the concept of self-control and delayed gratification. (Don’t worry, Elias doesn’t argue that European cultures invented politeness or self-control, only that they took a special interest in those features of social life as approaches to enforcing social norms. Many, many cultures emphasized the necessity of social grace long before Europeans did.)

Elias theorized that domestic life in Europe became gradually more “polite” from the 11th to the 18th centuries (while still remaining, no doubt, horrifically violent and awful by today’s standards) because during that time European adults were increasingly encouraged by religious leaders and aristocrats to inhibit their own impulses. Elias looks in particular at a book written in 1530 by the Dutch humanist Erasmus called On Civility and Boys, an etiquette manual that went on to be a best seller for 200 years, if you can believe that.

Erasmus’s guide focuses on bodily politeness (no farting at the table, no peeing out the window, etc.) but also on general awareness of other people. Controlling your appetites and thinking about the impact of your actions on those around you are not part of what Erasmus calls our “animal nature.” This is why, if you practice enough, they become “second nature” — not first.

The idea that you should control your “animal nature” so as to not stress out your family and friends was new to Europeans in the late Middle Ages. Good manners didn’t just grow out of a need for social control, they helped people live together in groups.

My parents were raised in the ’50s, when “good manners” and tidiness were taught to children with little explanation as to why they mattered, and enforced with heavy applications of shame and punishment. My parents would have known better than to defy a request to put on a nice shirt for a graduation ceremony in 1955, but they also would have probably found it unfair and unfun. They rebelled against those seemingly arbitrary rules when they became parents, by taking a looser approach.

But manners make life more pleasurable when we gather in groups, and I should have started teaching that lesson to my kids already. Unlike the authoritarian parents of my grandparents’ generation, we can explain to our kids why we expect them to behave in certain ways. It’s not to avoid shame or to live in lockstep with repressive social norms — it’s to be considerate of others.

Good manners are part of what keeps us knit together in groups, and seeing our children behave with poor manners feels almost life-threateningly shameful — a breach of thousands of years of sanity-preserving norms. So yeah: biggest parenting regret, hands down.

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